Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Lifetime of Temporary Relief

Late one night a bunch of years ago, I was up watching television when I saw an advertisement for the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed. This modern marvel of sleep technology resembles the kind of bed you find in hospital rooms. It allows you to adjust the angle of the feet, legs, and head so you can sit up in bed and read or watch television, or elevate the knees to ease the lumbar spine. "All with the push of a button!" according to the voice-over announcer.

At the end of the commercial came the slogan: "The Craftmatic Adjustable Bed. For a lifetime of temporary relief from low back pain." Now obviously the legal department over at Craftmatic must have gotten hold of the script and insisted on this wording, but the absurdity of it still makes me chuckle.

In a way, though, this silly slogan sums up the experience of vipassana meditation. The back pain is equal to the suffering we cause ourselves from getting into the uncomfortable positions of clinging and aversion. These postures gives rise to a sense of self ("I want this/I don't want that") which can cause us discomfort. The "temporary relief" is the practice we learn through vipassana of being able to release the tight fist of clinging, or to abandon the aversion, and return to the present-moment reality. 

Because the mind is tenacious, however, the thoughts that give rise to clinging and aversion will probably come back sooner or later, and we have to repeat the process all over again. And again. And again...

When you find yourself suffering because of ruminative, repetitive thoughts that are useless and upsetting, first begin by asking yourself, "Is this thing that I'm thinking of happening now?" Perhaps these thoughts come to you at night when you are lying in bed (whether Craftmatic or ordinary, it doesn't matter). This is a time when we are particularly vulnerable to negative thoughts and ideas. Obviously, the thing you are fearing in the future can't be happening in this moment, so you turn your attention toward a present-moment event, such as the feeling of the body breathing, or the feeling of your head lying on the pillow.

The mind has a built-in bias toward the present-moment experience, and will always favor the present-moment experience over a thought about an imagined future event. You can test this by trying to conjure up the taste of pickles while you're mindfully eating chocolate ice cream. The mind cannot hold these two things at one time, so it makes a choice to pay attention to the event that is actually taking place in this moment. (This would be a desirable trait in terms of human evolution. For instance, the intense concentration required for hunting would not have been possible if the mind had no mechanism to filter thoughts from present-moment reality.)

I really like these bits of empirical evidence that prove how mindfulness can actually work. It gives me a lot of confidence in my practice, and provides a real solid framework from which to teach these techniques to students and patients.

Remember, however, that the relief from the troubling thought will only be temporary. It will probably come back again, sooner or later. Therefore, do not expect miracles. These ruminative thought habits have been with you for a long time, so they are not likely to go away completely in one try. Nor are they ever likely to stay away once and for all. However, if you become diligent with this kind of practice of returning to the present-moment reality, and apply it throughout your day, it will become the new habit of mind, and your temporary relief will be guaranteed.

Or your money back.


1 comment:

  1. I love the notion of "A lifetime of temporary relief" as applied to mindfulness and meditation :-). And the origin of it is so funny.